Where Does A Mass Shooter Come From?
I’ll begin with two disclaimers:
- My own family has been through a school shooting. My husband was an administrator at Platte Canyon High School in 2006, when 16-year-old Emily Keyes was murdered by a lone gunman who entered the building and took several students hostage.
- This blog is not an indictment (or judgment) of moms or dads or families, randomly labeled as “unhealthy.” I am not pointing the finger at single parents or widowed parents or anyone else who’s had to raise kids in ways some are tempted to judge. This blog is a reminder of our nation’s need to nurture and uphold “family.” We’ve let the institution flounder by failing to support its key importance in shaping the future of our children and nation.
Growing Up Without Fear Of Mass Shootings
My husband and I grew up together in school; we attended the same schools in rural Minnesota and then went to college together in California. From nursery school through college, my husband and I walked the same hallways and studied in the same classrooms.
During our school days, the two of us never wondered if a shooter would enter our classroom to kill us. We didn’t consider that going to a music festival might make us victims of target practice. I’m guessing that when you were young, you couldn’t conceive of this kind of mass violence either. Most of us could not have imagined the slaughter that’s unfolded in schools, concert venues, offices and public buildings in the modern era.
Not coincidentally, when most of us we were growing up, American families were in a healthier state. More kids were born inside of wedlock. More marriages stayed together. More fathers were present in their children’s lives. More kids interacted with family and friends instead of screens.
So that brings me to a simple challenge for everyone trying to figure out how to combat the alarming uptick in mass shootings. The challenge is posed as a question: can a mass shooter come from a healthy family and can we avoid raising perpetrators of mass violence by supporting family health?
I issue the challenge simply because there’s a wealth of evidence suggesting many of our nation’s mass shooters came from dysfunctional, broken or deeply troubled families.
So when we address the rise in mass shootings, why do we insist on talking only about hot-button political issues like gun control, mental health funding and school safety? Why do we refuse to talk about one of the most obvious organic issues behind the increase in unthinkable violence? Why, I ask, aren’t we willing to see a correlation between the breakdown of the family and the rise in mass shootings?
Let me be clear. I’m not opposed to investigating hot-button issues. I’m not opposed to considering enhancements of gun control laws or increased funding for mental health or even improvements in school safety. I’m willing to consider these potential “fixes,” mostly because I don’t view the rising trend of shooting massacres as only a family issue. But, it is a family issue.
One final disclaimer: I head up a nonprofit that serves mothers–ALL mothers. Single moms. Divorced moms. Teen moms. Married moms. Widowed moms. Republican moms. Democrat moms. Christian moms. And moms of other faiths. Our nonprofit aims to serve all moms. And I happen to deeply admire the moms who raise amazing children as single or widowed parents or within the context of blended families. So, my intention is not to condemn any mom or dad who finds her or himself outside a presumed definition of “healthy family.”
Many Mass Killers Come From Troubling Home Environments
My intention is to say we must not ignore the link between men who kill the masses and the unhealthy family environments contributing to their violent actions. Environments like these: Households without dads, where the male authority figure is simply missing. Living rooms where more time is spent on screens than on face-to-face family time. Family rooms transformed into killing zones as boys stare endlessly at video games–teaching them to kill people without consequence. Dinner tables that sit empty, due to busy schedules, financial demands or increasing discomfort over talking face-to-face to our kids about life lessons–lessons of responsibility, kindness, faith and love.
Consider the things we know about the troubling family environments of several of the mass killers who’ve stolen dozens of lives in recent years:
Nikolas Cruz, who is accused of killing 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL: A recent report suggests that, at age 5, Cruz watched his adoptive father die of a heart attack and was bullied for years by his younger brother. After his father died, Cruz was cared for by his adoptive mom, Lynda. She died in November of 2017, just three months before Cruz allegedly went on his rampage. Lynda Cruz is reported to have called authorities to say she could not control her son. One report suggested Cruz was violent and threatened his mom when she took away his access to video games. [Obviously, we must support the noble commitment of adoptive parents of children like Nikolas Cruz, especially as they do their best to overcome dysfunction trickling down from their children’s biological parents].
Adam Lanza, who killed 20 elementary students and 6 staff at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT: Adam’s parents, Nancy and Peter, divorced in 2009 when Adam was 17 years old. The parents reportedly agreed to joint custody of Adam, but it seems he lived only with his mother the last 2 years of his life. Adam’s father, according to one report, had not seen his son in two years before Adam’s slaughterous tour of Sandy Hook. Adam was reported to have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome (on the autism spectrum) and was known to be a recluse, shutting himself into his bedroom and communicating with his mother only via email (while she lived in the same house). Adam was also reported to have owned and played violent video games for hours, potentially even in the hours before he carried out the massacre.
Elliott Rodger, the Isla Vista Killer, who killed 6 people and wounded 14 near University of California, Santa Barbara: Rodger’s parents divorced when Elliott was just 7 and Elliott went into therapy that same year. His father remarried a year later. Rodger wrote in his personal “manifesto” that his father was “rarely there” during times he spent at his father and stepmother’s home. He also described his increasing loneliness and isolation from family coupled with his increasing addiction to violent video games. It was reported that “by the age of 13, Elliot had walled himself into the fictional cyberworld of World of Warcraft.”
Based on the known family environments of each mass shooter, I cannot leave out the link between violent media and the young men who often participate in that media right before they kill. Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman, an expert on the link between violent media and mass murders, writes extensively about the dangers of letting kids be raised by violent video games and movies. When I interviewed the Colonel recently for ChannelMom Radio, he insisted, “The video games are murder simulators and they are truly training people to kill. It’s the new ingredient in the equation and, you’re right, all these killers came from unhealthy families. Now, some of them would’ve said, ‘well, we were a healthy family.’ Did you let your kids spend 20, 40, 60 hours a week on video games? Then you are not a healthy family.”
I would agree that prolific use of violent video games is a symptom of less healthy families. Research proves, again and again, that our kids spend more time with their media than with their parents. This research should serve as a wakeup call for parents and families.
The Health Of The Family Isn’t A Right Or Left Issue
By the way, the health of the family is not a conservative or liberal issue. While organizations like Focus on the Family and Family Research Council are often tied to conservative politics, there are noted liberals who’ve taken a stance for focusing on the health of the family as well. Progressive activist and one-time Harvard Professor, Cornel West, co-authored a book (with Sylvia Ann Hewlett), entitled The War Against Parents, which points to “the power of parents to make or break a child’s life.” The book states, “research in the field has uncovered ominous links between absentee parents and a whole range of emotional and behavioral problems among children,” citing higher rates of substance abuse, poor academic performance, delinquency, violent crimes, psychiatric hospitalization, incarceration, and suicide. Experts in the field explain some of these alarming trends are due to a range of family issues—from divorce to absent fathers to long work hours for parents. The book suggests: “the need for parental investment and involvement in children has reached new heights just when moms and dads are increasingly unable to be there for them.”
The mother of Dylan Klebold (who perpetrated the deadly shooting rampage at Columbine High School) has written an honest book about her label as “parent of a shooter.” She poignantly explains she was a happily married, dedicated mom and had a seemingly healthy family. Is it possible that Dylan Klebold came from a healthy family? Sue Klebold does admit she was not aware of the state of Dylan’s mind–a state that eventually led him to kill. “I failed to understand as a parent until it was too late,” she laments in her book, A Mother’s Reckoning.
And therein lies the rub. One reason we don’t want to talk about family as a possible organic cause, driving these mass shooters, is because it means responsibility. Many of our congressmen, senators, leaders, spokespeople and media personalities don’t want to deal with complicated causes that point to individual responsibility–like parenting, marital commitment and dedicated child-rearing. They’d rather find easier things to blame, like gun laws or mental health funding or a faltering FBI. It’s much harder for ALL of us (including me) to take a good, hard look at how we are “doing family” in America. Because that involves personal responsibility and solutions we cannot legislate.
So, while I would not suggest faltering family is the only thing to blame for the overwhelming mass violence threatening our nation, I would ask, why can’t our nation take a good, hard look at the families we’ve become or failed to become? For the sake of our children. For the sake of our nation.